Monday, October 31, 2011

Replacing Bricks and Pointing

Strangely, I'm feeling a Pink Floyd moment coming on...

Actually, this weekend was a chance to REALLY get my brain around the mortar, pointing up, and historically appropriate mortar thing.

See, we had some deteriorating bricks on the un-painted side of the house and we were thinking that we needed to get on the worst of those bricks. You can see one of the ones I left un-done this weekend below.

Why did I leave that poor "water damaged" brick when I was right there working on two others? Well, I'll tell you why. Those bricks are TOUGH. I mean, HARD. SOUND. You'd think that a spalled brick such as that would have been soft and crumbly. You'd be wrong. There was damned little wrong with the bricks that they built this house from.

So what was with those deteriorated brick? Mortar. HARD mortar. HARD to chisel out.

Mortar used to be sacrificial. That is, it was meant to to fail before the brick does. Mortar is easy to replace. Brick is not so easy to replace. An old brick home is designed to aspirate an water that gets in. BUT water, brick, and mortar expand and contract at different rates as we go through freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycles.

So what happened, as far as I can tell, is that some time long ago, maybe 40, 50, or even 60 years ago, someone did a bunch of brick work and really packed the mortar in around these bricks. And they used very hard mortar. As a result, when the brick got moist and then froze, there wasn't any place for it to expand to, and so the front of the brick cracked and then crumbled.

That's the bad news. The good news is that a lot of those bricks look bad but are just fine--very hard and sound. Of course, if I care about how they look, then I've got a very tough task ahead of me if they are all as sound as these three were. I spent 4 hours cutting out 3 bricks and replacing them. I hit my hand with a brick hammer at least 2 dozen times. I can bring in a hammer drill, and I will, I suppose, but this task is not the cake-walk I expected.

In any case, onward. So we don't have this problem again in the future, I made doubly sure that my mortar was soft enough. I came to the conclusion that my prior mix was still way too hard for what I want to do. The trick is to use less than 20% portland vs. your portland+lime mix. Here's what I used:

1 Part Type N Mortar
2 1/2 Parts Lime
5 Parts Sand
Dye to taste

Why dye? Well, lime and Type N are both rather grey. This doesn't look much like the existing mortar and is thus unaesthetic. A little bit of putty colored concrete dye really makes the mortar almost invisible and if you use sand that is close to what is already there, it completes the illusion.

So, here's the step by step.

To replace bricks

1) chisel out as much mortar as you can,
2) using a small or even pointed chisel, break the brick and pry out pieces.
3) chisel out any remaining mortar and make sure the cavity is clean and sound.
4) size the cavity vs. the replacement brick. All bricks are not the same size.
5) either spray the brick with water or use a wetter mortar mix--those bricks suck up water.
6) don't over-pack the cavity with mortar. You want to seal the brick in, but you don't really want mortar between the inside and the outside course of bricks. It's Ok to leave a pretty good air pocket behind the mortar and the brick.
7) smooth the mortar with a pointing trowel. If you need to, you can lightly spray the mortar with water to create a neat finish.
8)After the mortar sets for a bit, come back with a brush and a spray bottle and knock off any excess mortar on the face of the brick.

The tools I used were a standard triangular trowel, a pointing trowel, and a rectangular trowel. The latter was best for mixing mortar in the bucket. The pointing trowel was great for getting into the gap between the bricks and for pushing mortar off the triangular trowel and into the wall.

One last tip: if you are pointing, start someplace that's hard to see. You'll be messier when you start, and will get better as you go.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Update: It's Been Too Long

It has been too long since our last real renovation/DIY update. We're sorry about that. Regular work makes for less time, but also, we're so used to "doing things" that we're usually done before we realize that we should have taken a shot or two and written a blog post.

We'll try to do a bit better. At this point, much of what we are doing is repairs and redecorating. Redecorating was about the last thing on our minds for the past several years, but a couple months ago, Mrs. OrDie says to me, "You know those color codes I told you about?"


"Red means Beef. Blue means chicken. Pink means intestines/stomach. Antique white, however, means 'RENTAL'."


"Yep. We're putting some color in this place..."

And so it went. It's not as easy for people like us as you'd think, but so far, we've got our living room painted a neat warm color "Mississippi Mud", and the guest bath is a bright cranberry red. Both are huge improvements, though both took a whole lot of samples and sample painting to get right.

We'll try to get a post up on color selection and painting tips next week. With some luck, we'll have a post regarding the completion of the bedroom mural soon after that.

In the mean time, DIY'ers might want to check out the Rehabbers' Manual (scroll down to the first installment to go through them in order). Or just browse back through the blog. We came a long way and have a lot of good stuff up in past postings.

Recipe: Gorgonzola Bunny

(photo courtesy of

Last night, we enjoyed this wondeful dish during an extended power outage. It is even better with candle light on a cold blustery night.

Gorgonzola Bunny
(takes 1/2 hour to prep, and 2-2 1/2 hours to cook.) For 4 people:

2 large rabbits
2 T Tarragon, divided
1 cup flour
ample salt and pepper to taste
2 T olive oil (as needed)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
2 bay leaves
3-4 springs of fresh thyme
2-3 onions (based upon taste and size/room)
2 large turnips
3/4 lb carrots (less or more to taste)
2 cups Chicken broth (enough to cover--best quality made with feet*)
1 cup of dry white wine.
1/3 lb Gorgonzola (Italian is better, if it's not really sharp, try Danish Blue instead)
Fresh Tarragon for garnish or to add to sauce (optional)

First, bone the rabbit. I separate the back legs and then simply cut the meat off each in as large pieces as possible. Then I cut the meat from the front legs, and slice the saddle off both sides. I then cut the loins off by running a sharp blade down either side of the back bone. This is tricky and a bit like filleting fish, pulling the meat out with your thumb and scraping along the spine and ribs with the knife. It's worth the effort however. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, you can cut the whole loin section apart from the ribs and worry about pulling the meat once it's cooked. If you REALLY don't want to bone the rabbit at all, you can have the butcher cut it into pieces, but your guests will have to eat the meat from the bone and some may be squeamish.

Once boned, dredge the rabbit pieces in flour seasoned with 1/2 of the tarragon and ample salt and pepper. lightly brown in a non-stick pan and place in your dutch oven or covered pan. I like to add a half tablespoon of the seasoned flour to the pan with a little more olive oil, to cook for a few minutes. This will act as a thickening agent. De-glaze pan with wine and a bit of stock and pour into the dutch oven with the rabbit pieces.

Peel and coarsely chop the carrot, onion, and turnips. Add to the pot with the rabbit. Add remaining tarragon, thyme, garlic, and bay leaves. Cover with best quality chicken stock, bring to a simmer, and then place in a 350' oven for 1 1/2 hours. Add about 1/3 of the Gorgonzola to the pot, in small pieces. Return the pot to the oven for another 10 minutes or so.

Serve on plates or wide bowls. Arrange the rabbit and vegetables so that you can place small pieces of Gorgonzola on each bit of rabbit. Pour hot broth from the pot over the pieces of rabbit so that it melts the Gorgonzola into a glaze. Serve with a nice pinot noir and a salad of bitter greens with a Dijon vinaigrette.

Note 1: if you bring the sauce back to a simmer it will help the Gorgonzola melt when you pour the sauce over the rabbit. Note 2: on herbs, I've found that one can omit the thyme without much ill effect and if you don't have fresh, don't add thyme at all. Also, the tarragon need not be fresh. Dried seems to work quite well and should not be omitted.

*chicken feet are available at better poultry sellers. They impart a velvety mouth feel to stock and hence the sauces made from the stock. If feet are unavailable when you are making chicken stock, you can come fairly close by including a generous number of chicken breast bones along with backs and necks.